Being flexible is key to protecting mental health in people with chronic pain

It may be the pain interference on daily life, rather than the intensity of the pain.


A person is more likely to experience poor mental health and impairment if they have chronic pain, characterized as discomfort lasting three months or more. Adaptive goal processes have been linked in research to mental health in various populations. Yet, studies on individuals with chronic pain have rarely examined these pathways in relation to pain characteristics and mental health.

A new Edith Cowan University (ECU) study aimed to examine the potential mediating roles of goal flexibility and goal tenacity in the relationships between pain intensity and pain interference, and mental well-being among individuals with chronic pain. It found that for people with chronic pain, it’s not necessarily how intense their pain is but how much it interferes with their daily life that can pose the biggest threat to their mental health.

The study involved above 300 people with non-cancer-related chronic pain. The participants were surveyed about their mental well-being, their ‘pain intensity,’ and how much pain interfered (‘pain interference’) with their simple everyday pursuits and activities that mattered to them.

ECU researcher Joanne Dickson said, “The findings suggest that as a result of pain, people might not have the psychological and/or physical capacity to participate in activities that help them attain their personal goals, which can have significant implications for their mental well-being.”

“The good news is that this research showed personal goal flexibility (i.e., the ability to adapt and to adjust to life’s difficulties and obstacles) in how we strive to maintain or achieve the things that matter to us can provide a protective buffer in maintaining and promoting mental wellbeing.”

ECU researcher Tara Swindells said“The study investigated how persistently pursuing valued goals (goal tenacity) and adjusting those valued goals in response to setbacks or obstacles (goal flexibility) might help to explain how some individuals with chronic pain maintain a sense of mental wellbeing.” 

“The findings highlighted, for the first time, that distinct goal motivational processes appear to have a protective and buffering effect in maintaining mental wellbeing in those with chronic pain.”

“Specifically, we found that goal flexibility and goal tenacity seem to buffer the negative emotional impacts of pain interference on mental wellbeing, and flexibility even more so than tenacity.”

“So if you’re able to adjust, adapt and find ways to achieve still what matters to you most in the face of life’s obstacles, that will help protect your mental wellbeing.”

“Pain management and mental health are multi-faceted.”

“Previous pain-related research has shown that physical factors (e.g., sleep, injury, disease) and social factors (e.g., employment, social support, economic factors) play a significant role in pain management,” she said. 

“The findings from our study add to this body of knowledge. They indicate that variations in adaptive psychological processes provide another useful lens to understand the relationship between pain interference and mental wellbeing.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Tara Swindells, Joanne Iddon, et al. The Role of Adaptive Goal Processes in Mental Wellbeing in Chronic Pain. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph20021278 
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